Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Obama’s Affirmative Inaction

People are asking: If Barack Obama can really transcend race, is he going to transcend race preferences?

The answers he has given to that question have elicited commendation, disappointment and, for me, confusion.

George Stephanopoulos asked Obama about affirmative action last year on “This Week,” and again at the Philadelphia debate in April. His response was that when his daughters apply to go to college they should “be treated by any admissions officer as folks who are pretty advantaged,” as he put it on Stephanopoulos’ show, and that “if there’s a young white person who has been working hard, struggling and has overcome great odds, that’s something that should be taken into account,” as he said in the debate.

Sounds like the build up to a ringing denunciation of socioeconomically blind racial preferences. Yet Obama pulled back from explicitly coming out against racial preferences. “I still believe in affirmative action as a means of overcoming both historic and potentially current discrimination,” he said at the debate.

Confusing? Not to DeWayne Wickham. Last week, in his USA Today column, he commended Obama for opposing ballot initiatives in Arizona, Colorado and Nebraska that would accomplish exactly what Obama had denounced — these measures ban race-based preferences in state contracting and college admissions, but allow preferences based on socioeconomic factors. Wickham quoted an Obama representative who said Obama believed those initiatives “would roll back opportunity for millions of Americans and cripple efforts to break down historic barriers to the progress of qualified women and minorities.”

That disappointed Ward Connerly, who led those anti-affirmative action efforts after winning similar battles in California, Michigan and Washington. Writing in the Wall Street Journal Friday, Connerly said he had “desperately wanted to believe” Obama would come out against race-based affirmative action, but the Wickham column dashed his hopes. “By supporting race preferences, Mr. Obama is unmistakably attaching himself to despicable ideas,” Connerly wrote.

Obama is, of course, correct to say his daughters are children of privilege. In what other way can anybody regard the family of a man who, five months from now, could well be elected president of the United States?

And he is correct to say college admissions systems should grant poor white applicants an edge. He knows it is unsustainable to argue that his kids are in more need of special help than the kids of a janitor who immigrated from Albania last year, or of a single unemployed mother from Appalachia whose ancestors came here from England 300 years ago.

So why doesn’t Obama back Connerly’s ballot measures?

Connerly’s movement is fatally tainted. It is tainted by Neanderthals from the right, to whom affirmative action represents an opportunity to play the virtuous victim, the role long ago perfected by the left. In the conservative mind, Affirmative Action America is a country of — dare one say it — institutionalized racism where guilt-ridden liberals give blacks and Hispanics all the advantages. It’s pretend, of course, a game. Nobody really believes that being white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant and male makes you the target of so much racism only NASCAR will give you a job. But crying about the unfairness of it all while proclaiming that Connerly, a black man, will slay the dragon of reverse discrimination gives these people an irresistible chance to publicly act out decades of repressed racism in a socially acceptable way.

Obama is also under pressure from Neanderthals on the left. There is no good argument for a system like the one outlawed by the Supreme Court at the University of Michigan, which awarded an automatic 20 points on a scale of 150 to every applicant from ethnic groups deemed a “minority.” That system was only defended by “minorities” who love to wallow in the virtuous victimhood that was once their exclusive domain, and by liberal whites who get secretly get a kick from patronizing them.

But pressure from either end of the political spectrum should not matter to Obama. If he truly intends to be this country’s first post-racial leader, he is going to have to create a new form of affirmative action — one that considers ethnic diversity a worthy goal but does not patronize its intended beneficiaries, and that protects all Americans from racial discrimination while recognizing most of its victims are not white.

Obama has not addressed that issue with clarity. His public pronouncements have been ambiguous, an a Google search for “affirmative action” at returns exactly zero hits.

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